Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Boy Started California Fire

Here's a remarkable piece of news from the U.S. Officials there claim that a boy playing with matches actually started the fire which has consumed some 2,000 homes and blackened 800 square miles of Californian landscape. Earlier, investigators were following the arson lead and even arrested five suspects but later released them for lack of evidence linking them to the fire. The Los Angeles sheriff's department has said that prosecutors were yet to determine if the boy's parents would be held accountable for any financial losses caused by the fire. Now there's one hell of a good reason why parents should admonish their children not to play with matches!

The "boy playing with matches" theory seems too incredible to be true and the American public might not believe that story. In fact, I am waiting for the U.S. authorities to take back or correct the press statement because it might have been very funny if not for the immensity of the destruction wrought by the fire. Actually, what this news report calls to mind is the Glorietta "Bombing or Gas Leak?" incident a couple of weeks ago wherein our own police authorities gave conflicting reports and theories on what really caused the explosion with Senator Trillanes even putting forth his "Oplan Greenbase all-over-again" theory. In this day and age, there is too much information available that it confuses most people. Eventually, one believes what one wants to believe.

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As a footnote to the recently-concluded barangay elections, I had this truly hilarious conversation with a man who won as kagawad in our barangay. While buying a pack of Marlboro Lights in our local tiangge store, I chanced upon our neighborhood tambays celebrating the "surprise" victory of their fellow tambay as Barangay Kagawad. They were quite loud, sincerely happy that one of their own is now holding the "reins of power" in the barangay and I can see that their group had already consumed at least one case of Red Horse beer. Their group was noisily discussing what they will do with the reported P3,000 allowance that a kagawad reportedly receives every month. A humble, jobless old man, the kagawad-elect (naks) would just nod to acknowledge all of his friends' wacky suggestions. When I asked him seriously (but only half-seriously) what he plans to do with his first salary, he replied (seriously) "mapahimo ko pustiso." (translation: "i'll go get a set of dentures.") I almost swallowed my cigarette.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Big Fish in a Small Pond

By failing to enact the bill postponing the barangay elections, Congress has set the stage (finally) for the Barangay Elections this coming October 29. Up for grabs are the positions of barangay chair, barangay kagawads, SK (Sangguniang Kabataan) chair and SK kagawads in some 45,000 barangays all over the country. Since previous barangay elections have been postponed repeatedly, this present crop of barangay officials have been holding office for nine years already. In fact most of our SK representatives in Iloilo City no longer belong to the teenage/youth sector and many are already married with children of their own.

Barangays differ widely in terms of land area, voting population and income. Iloilo City, for example, has some 180 barangays and the average voting population size of each barangay is only about 1,500 voters. There is even one barangay in the City Proper which now has less than 10 voters (its old residents, mainly informal settlers, were relocated because Robinsons bought the land and built a shopping mall in the area). There are some barangays which can be considered "cities" in their own right: Barangay Addition Hills in Mandaluyong City reportedly has 40,000 voters while Barangay Commonwealth in Batasan Hills, Quezon City is said to have a whooping 48,000 voters! Some barangays are famous for being rich (Barangay Forbes Park in Makati for the old rich and Barangay Ayala Alabang in Muntinlupa for the noveau riche) while others have acquired notoriety for being breeding grounds of criminals.

Officially, barangay officials receive no salary. Unofficially, they receive allowances and various emoluments from their mayor, their congressman, etc. Also, barangay captains are regularly "spoiled" by their mayors and congressmen by taking them out on junkets, night-outs, etc. and granting their requests for "funding." Barangays get a certain percentage from the IRA (Internal Revenue Allotment): 20% as mandated by the Local Government Code. MalacaƱang has recently promised to increase the barangays' IRA share by some 14% (read this Manila Times article). On top of that, barangay officials also get to enjoy a variety of perks. For example if there's a hotel (or better yet a motel) in his vicinity, the barangay chairman might enjoy free check-in privileges or if the barangay chairman is a she, she might bag the supply contract for all the tissue paper and soap for the hotel. Business establishments in general try to be friendly and accommodate their requests because barangay officials can always revoke their permits and barangay clearances.

I have a cousin who used to be a barangay chairman (not in Iloilo City) but he lost his reelection bid. When I asked him why he lost (by only 20 plus votes mind you), he said that perhaps he did not "give in" to his constituents' requests enough. It also did not help that his opponent belongs to one of the biggest clans in their locality. More than money, family counts a lot in barangay elections and the one who usually wins is the one who has the most blood relations in the barangay. "Approachability" seems to be the other most important trait people look for in their barangay officials. Nakagat sang ido si Junior? Call the barangay captain. May rumble sa kanto? Call the barangay captain. Wala gatas si baby? Utang anay kay Kap. Nag away kamo sang asawa mo kag gin-palayas ka sa inyo? Sleep ka anay sa balay ni Kap. Another cousin of mine used to be active in the SK and I often kidded her that she will become barangay chair someday. But her chances for the post were diminished because of a very sad development: she passed the Bar. Now, people in the community call her "Attorney" and are now hesitant, even intimidated, to approach her. Because she is now a lawyer, her "approachability" factor in the barangay plummeted. This is probably the main reason why barangays are dominated by "istambay" types (read this splendid column by Neal Cruz of the Inquirer). Voters don't want lawyers, doctors, academicians, etc. as their barangay chairman because these "prominent" individuals are generally "mahirap utusan" or "nakakahiyang lapitan." "Istambays" (a bastardization of the word "stand by") are more easier to approach and can relate better to the mundane problems of ordinary people.

You can usually see them drinking Red Horse beer (or if times are hard, Tanduay) in the neighborhood sari-sari store. "Istambays" almost always know the latest gossip and goings-on in our locality and they practically know everyone living in our neighborhood. Their world is the barangay. And far from being the menacing type usually depicted in the movies, I find our local neighborhood tambays engagingly friendly, very helpful and respectful. I surmise that for many of them, becoming Barangay Chairman is perhaps the highest ambition they can aspire and hope to achieve. After all, being a big fish in a small pond is always better than being a small fish in a big pond.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Secretary Gonzalez To Be Released On Sunday

Yesterday, Iloilo City Congressman Jun Gonzalez happily informed me that his father will be released from the National Kidney Institute this coming Sunday. According to him, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez's kidney transplant operation was highly successful and estimates that it will take another week or two for the Secretary to recuperate and be healthy enough to resume his duties in the Cabinet. If it was up to him (and his other siblings), Congressman Jun would rather see his father retire from his highly stressful job in the Justice Department but added that the decision would ultimately be up to the President. He quipped that his father, a known workaholic, doesn't seem to grasp the concept of retirement and he suspects that the Secretary would probably "whither away" when stripped of something to do. He says that even now, his father is aching to get back at the saddle and they are hard put to make him relax and take his mind off his job at the Justice Department.

Vilified in the press, Secretary Gonzalez has become the scourge of people critical of the GMA administration and his "colorful" remarks have offended civil society groups. When news about his failing health broke out months ago, many people hoped that the President would finally replace this petulant Ilonggo with someone more pliant or pleasant. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, in an editorial, called on President Arroyo to retire him permanently, to quote:

"We say, like some senators, that Gonzalez should make his leave permanent because it will be good for his health. He has rendered enough service (or disservice, depending on one’s point of view) to his country and should be allowed to rest. There are hundreds of brilliant lawyers who can fill his shoes at the Department of Justice. It is not as if Gonzalez is indispensable, and is the only one who is qualified to be secretary of justice.

Gonzalez is a prime example of a Cabinet member who has politicized his position. He has not dispensed impartial, unbiased and apolitical justice. In many of his decisions, actions and statements, he has been biased, political and very protective of Ms Arroyo. Most of the time, one listening to him would think that he is not the justice secretary but a political or publicity spokesperson of the President and her administration."

Whoever wrote that Inquirer editorial totally missed the true nature and function of the post. The Justice Secretary in fact is supposed to be "biased, political and very protective" of his or her president. I remember that during his stint at the Justice Department, former Senate President Franklin Drilon (another Ilonggo) had Senator Juan Ponce Enrile arrested (right at the Senate steps, if I remember correctly) for his alleged complicity in the coup plots against then-President Cory Aquino. Even Bobby Kennedy, who served as Attorney General (the counterpart of our Justice Secretary here) to JFK, used his office to defend his brother from his detractors and protect him from politically embarrassing situations. Throughout his stint at the Attorney General’s Office, Bobby functioned more as the "bad cop" to JFK's "good cop," the brass knuckle to President Kennedy's velvet glove. Gonzalez was not the first to "politicize" the position. If you examine closely, all justice secretaries from Quezon down to Estrada have been "biased, political and very protective" of their respective presidents. Serafin Cuevas was not as "biased, political and very protective" of his president, and look where Erap is now. The Justice Secretary, therefore, is more like a samurai who is supposed to defend his liege lord or a matador who tries to impress the damsel with his deft bull-slaying moves.

I am sure that there are probably hundreds of lawyers out there who think they are more brilliant than Gonzalez (as most lawyers are wont to think). But brilliance is but one of the qualifications to the job. Loyalty and political savvy are other traits required of a Justice Secretary. One brilliant lawyer I know who invited GMA to transfer MalacaƱang to Iloilo "betrayed" her a week later by leading the so-called "Hyatt 10" mass resignation. A good Justice Secretary knows that he should leave the business of prosecuting criminals to his State Prosecutors or Fiscals who are career officials. People should realize that what makes Gonzalez valuable to GMA is his unswerving loyalty to the President. He has gone thru thick and thin, to hell and high water, with his President. What makes him apart from the dime-a-dozen brilliant lawyers out there is his willingness to act as the "presidential lightning rod" absorbing all the hate that otherwise would have been directed at the President. I am sure even those in the political opposition would understand the value of loyalty, especially now that loyalty is very hard to find in our present era of "transactional politics."

Secretary Gonzalez is perhaps one of our last surviving politicians who still lives by the old code of "pula-puti" politics. In an age where politicians change parties and shift alliances faster than they change their socks, Gonzalez has managed to thrive in politics simply by staying true and loyal not only to his political superiors but also to his supporters. "What you see is what you get" seems to be his political motto. The other one is "I will be loyal to you if you are loyal to me." In Iloilo City where he served as our representative for three terms, he empowered and gave importance to the 180 or so barangay chairs who have been largely ignored by many mayors past. Now, every politician in the city is courting the barangay chairs' support. He is also loyal to his employees and long-time supporters and almost always says yes to their requests for help. He may appear stern and stiff in public, but many beat reporters at the DOJ attest that he is one of the most approachable Justice Secretaries to occupy the post. Gonzalez is every reporter's dream and his "colorful," often quotable remarks has not only enhanced their journalistic careers but also increased newspaper sales and TV viewership. This may come as a news to some, but Gonzalez is actually well-liked by people who regularly work with him.

It therefore came as no surprise to me that Moroy, Gonzalez's driver of 30 years, would willingly donate one of his kidneys just so his principal could live longer. While dramatic, Moroy's gesture of absolute loyalty to his boss is symptomatic or can be considered typical among the staffers of Gonzalez, most of whom have been with him for more than a decade. When he had a bleeding ulcer and needed blood several months ago, his staff lined up to offer their blood. That kind of loyalty, of malasakit for your boss, can be seldom seen today not only in politics but also in the corporate sector. I wonder how many drivers of senators or CEOs would willingly donate their kidneys to their bosses?

You may not agree with his style, but Gonzalez definitely knows his politics. It's almost as if the song "My Way" was composed for him.